State Dinner, and the 'Language Screwup' That Was, or Wasn't


When I am no longer way, way overdue on a (non-China related) article for the magazine, I will "intend" to provide some color commentary on the State Dinner for Hu Jintao last night at the White House, which my wife and I were grateful to have a chance to attend.

For the moment, an interesting technological shift from such events of yore: everyone had a smart phone of some description, naturally with camera. And while CEOs and Cabinet officials would in earlier years have felt gauche pulling out actual cameras at dinner time to take pictures of the goings-on, once the ice was broken a large number of people were happily and frequently snapping camera-phone shots of themselves, their table-mates, the menus, the surroundings, the heads of state, etc. My wife was seated next to a very famous musician, who hopped up to shoot a smart-phone video when, just behind us, Barack Obama and Hu Jintao (plus interpreters) stopped to chat with Jackie Chan. On the other hand, this is the first event in memory in which *almost* no one was glancing down at the Blackberry or the iPhone every few minutes to check for mail or send updates. There were a couple of exceptions, and I will store up that list -- of people who, even at an event like this, were curious whether there might be something yet more attention-worthy in the email -- for possible deployment at some strategic point in the future....

Back to business: an American friend who does much of his work with Chinese-language sources sheds this light on the translation mystery, or non-mystery, from yesterday's joint press conference:

>>I was just watching this Hu/human rights press conference episode and think it is actually pretty likely that Hu never heard the initial question. First of all, the translator did not render the question with any fidelity: he said "in reference to the recently posed human rights question, how do you respond?" (关于刚才提人权问题,你是怎么回答的)*. Then during the following sentence (when the translator starts in on Obama's response), Hu looks confused and points to his ear, summoning his aide over who presumably shuffles off to fix his translation feed. 

That this happened about a minute after the translator started talking should give us some pause (maybe he just didn't like the question and pulled a stunt to evade it), but Hu does appear moderately confused about what is going on throughout that minute. Obviously, neither leader had been properly briefed on how the translation was going to proceed, because Obama apologized afterwards, thinking they had simultaneous translation. He also didn't get an English translation immediately on the subsequent question from CCTV. That Hu made a point of explaining his failure to answer earlier when the question was raised again is further, probably decisive, grounds to think that he really did not hear it initially.

Also, you're right to highlight what he did eventually say about human rights. Predictably, the translation doesn't get it entirely right. He said that "there is still a great deal of work to be done towards the development of human rights" (发展人权事业也有好多工作要作). This is logically consistent with the earlier and often repeated point about China making progress on human rights, though the emphasis on "a lot of work" is indeed notable. If I get a chance, I'll dig back and see what Hu and other leaders have said in the past, but I suspect this is not substantively different. If there is some variation, I would chalk it up to Hu's obvious discomfort fielding live questions and appearing on TV...rather than a deliberate signal that China wants to accommodate US demands on human rights.<<

* Thanks to several readers for pointing out a typo; the fifth character in this line has been corrected to 提 from 体.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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